LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Hunger in the U.S. has many causes. It may start with an illness or the loss of a job or it might be a neighborhood where healthy food is hard to find. That's how it is in the Avenues section of Sacramento, California, where poverty and a lack of infrastructure have created a food desert. Churches and food banks help fill the need, but community leaders are finding the fight against hunger requires much more than charity. From Capital Public Radio in Sacramento, Cosmo Garvin reports.
COSMO GARVIN, BYLINE: On the outside, the Ebenezer Christian Center in South Sacramento doesn't look like a church. There's no steeple or cross. It looks like a drab office building behind a black iron fence, but inside, Pastor Karen Abrego welcomes her neighbors.
PASTOR KAREN ABREGO: If you have your number hold it up. Let me see them. I'm Pastor Karen and I believe in the power of prayer. It doesn't have anything to do with your food.
My name is Karen Abrego and I'm the associate pastor at Ebenezer Christian Center, also known as Centro Christiano Ebenezer. It's in the Avenues community.
GARVIN: The Avenues is one of the poorest and most crime-ridden parts of Sacramento. About six years ago, Abrego began the food ministry at Ebenezer and about 300 families come every month for bags full of groceries.
ABREGO: Chips and then those are canned goods. These are yogurts.
GARVIN: The Avenues neighborhood is in a food desert, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That means at least 20 percent of people in the neighborhood are living below the poverty line and at least one-third live more than a mile from a supermarket or large grocery store. So Ebenezer is something of an oasis.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I got apples...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Tomatoes.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: ...tomatoes...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Cranberry juice.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: ...cranberry - big bottles of cranberry juice, water.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Four bottles of cranberry.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: We got a lot of good stuff. A lot of people in the neighborhood comes here.
GARVIN: So you walked over.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yeah, a lot of people live in the apartments right there and we walk over here.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: It really saves us. It help...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yeah.
GARVIN: Most of the people who come to the church for food are regulars. And many of the regulars rely on other churches and food banks during the month.
KIMBERLY GIBSON: By the last week of the month, it's pretty sparse. I run out of milk, bread. I run out of all of the basics and I'm kind of scrounging in my cupboard and trying to get the most out of the food banks that I can.
GARVIN: Kimberly Gibson lives across the street from Ebenezer in a supportive housing complex for the homeless. Gibson can't work because of chronic back condition. She also has severe depression. Because she gets a disability check from the state every month, she doesn't qualify for food stamps.
She can afford about one big shopping trip a month. Typically, it's to a discount store, like this Food Maxx in South Sacramento, about a 10 minute drive from where she lives.
GIBSON: Basic stuff - milk, bread, water, butter, potatoes, some kind of meat, vegetables, fruit.
GARVIN: Gibson has to get a ride to the store because she wrecked her car a few months ago and has no transportation. She used to make good money working for the state, but now her pain and her lack of income and transportation make Gibson feel isolated.
GIBSON: I still miss it every day. I miss the money. I miss just being out there in the world.
GARVIN: And the truth is Gibson is isolated. Pastor Abrego, with Ebenezer Christian Center, notes there is no grocery store in the Avenues, no bank, no library, no coffee shop - very few of the amenities you might take for granted.
ABREGO: How much green space do you see? Where is there for kids to play?
GARVIN: On the other hand, a new community center opened this year a few blocks from the church, which will act as a hub to connect residents to services and employment help. Next to that is a new community garden. Abrego doubts she'll ever see the end of hunger in the Avenues.
ABREGO: There's always going to be a need because there's always going to be people that are beat up by life.
GARVIN: She says it's her job to help those beat up by life, but also to push for more services, more investment and more tools to break the cycle of poverty.
ABREGO: But nobody came up to me and asked me, Pastor Karen, can you get us some food in this neighborhood? What they have come up and said to me is, boy, we sure would like an ESL class. They want to take the responsibility for improving their life for themselves and their kids.
GARVIN: More than groceries, Abrego says the neighborhood hungers for opportunity. For NPR News in Sacramento, I'm Cosmo Garvin.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That story came to us from Capital Public Radio's documentary series "The View From Here."
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